The "fake meat" burger made from plant protein is shaping up as the beginning of a big era of opportunity for grain growers, potentially worth almost $30 billion to Australia's agrifood sector in the next decade.
Meat alternatives sit alongside an array of other pulse crop-based energy foods, nutritional supplements and specialist food manufacturing ingredients now considered mainstream products by consumers of all ages and backgrounds.
In the US revenue derived from plant-based products used by the food and beverage sector grew 1.6 per cent to total 15pc last year.
Globally, about 6000 food products launched in 2019 were enhanced with grain legume-sourced protein ingredients.
These days plant protein forms the basis of anything from burgers and milk alternatives to protein enriched peanut butter, sports drinks and pulse grain snacks.
That burgeoning market has now spawned plans for a new Pulse Protein Co-operative Research Centre in Australia which would drive a national campaign of plant protein research and processing innovation, backed by universities, manufacturers, farmers and government.
It would also fund its own processing and research company, Advanced Protein Australia, which will build a pilot fractionation plant in partnership with one of its commercial investors.
The company would continue the CRC's work when its lifespan ended, commercialising the intellectual property it developed.
The CRC bid, worth up to $170m, is focused on developing fresh crop varieties and protein processing opportunities to triple Australia's pulse crop demand in 10 years to 30pc of the nation's crop rotation mix.
That, in turn, would generate about $14b in extra export crop value and another $14b in additional profits for food manufacturers adding value to about 15pc of the total pulse harvest.
I'm not interested in just improving the quality and value of our pulse crops, I'm interested in what's basically a whole new commodity space for us."
The CRC's bid team, chaired by former GrainGrowers chairman John Eastburn, noted between now and 2050 the world's total protein demand would likely jump 30pc to as much as 290m tonnes.
About 156m tonnes of that demand was expected to be sourced from crops, largely because animal-based products could not keep pace with fast rising demand for protein from wealthier consumers in emerging economies.
At the same time, consumers everywhere regarded plant-based products as healthier and more sustainable protein sources.
Few market incentives
However, Mr Eastburn said Australia's problem was our current pulse industry, based on field peas, faba beans, chickpeas, mung beans and lentils, was largely valued for its crop rotation or stockfeed benefit rather than market returns or reliability.
So far Australia had almost no processing capacity to turn crops into useful protein ingredient products and our plant breeding efforts were probably 60 years behind the wheat industry, with minimal focus on selecting for taste or food processing attributes.
In fact, while we grew about 4m tonnes of pulses, or about 10pc of winter crop plantings in an average year, Australia actually relied on imported plant protein to supply its own emerging portfolio of alternative meat and milk products and protein-enriched foods.
In 2018 importers spent $44m on 6400t of processed pea protein sourced from Europe or North America.
In the past two years alone Canadian investors had outlayed $500m building two fractionation plants set to process about 750,000t of pulses annually.
There are significant opportunities in creating the next version of this market
With our grain legume export trade based almost entirely on bulk commodity sales, Mr Eastburn, who farms in Central West NSW, said Australian growers endured wildly fluctuating and tariff distorted global markets and received lower returns than most of our export rivals.
In 2016, despite surging subcontinent demand for chickpeas, the big 4.25m tonne national pulse crop averaged 14pc to 50pc less than that achieved by the world's top eight exporters.
"Over a 10-year average we're getting about 25pc less than the world price," Mr Eastburn said.
"I'm not interested in just improving the quality and value of our pulse crops, I'm interested in what's basically a whole new commodity space for us."
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The entire grain industry, particularly wheat, needed to be underpinned by a healthy, viable grain legume market encouraging more regular use of pulses in crop rotations.
They provided a sustainable, low cost soil health booster - including 25 to 50 kilograms of free nitrogen a hectare.
"There are significant opportunities in creating the next version of this market," said CRC bid leader and professor of legume biology at the University of Sydney, Brent Kaiser.
"Plant-based foods are no longer niche sectors - they're forming a central part of what food and drink brands are producing."
Apart from high value human consumption flour or cubed protein products, markets for high end stockfeeds and protein starch also beckoned for the CRC and its private offshoot to work on.
"The poultry industry imports protein meal for its rations, but if we had a serious local industry we could work a lot more closely with stockfeed users, reducing their costs and tracking what they really needed," he said.
Aside from Sydney University, the CRC plan has backing from universities and research bodies in all states including prominent agricultural and food technology players such as Charles Sturt University, University of Melbourne, South Australian Research and Development Institute and University of Western Australia.
The project is seeking about $3m committed annually from research institutions, plus research facility support, up to $5m from the processing industry and other corporate investors, and $5m to $7m from the federal government's CRC support coffers over a decade.
Founding cash investors would retain a stake in the APA business and its estimated $20m annual revenues from intellectual property it generates.
The CRC submission will be made in June, for an intended commencement date 12 months later.
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The story Pulse opportunities racing as protein demand prompts $170m initiative first appeared on Farm Online.